The Handmaid's Tale Summary
by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale book cover
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The Handmaid's Tale Summary

The Handmaid's Tale is a novel by Margaret Atwood, which depicts a dystopian world where a theocracy has taken the place of the United States government, and women have lost all of their rights.

  • Offred is a Handmaid, responsible for producing children for her commander.
  • The commander, who is only supposed to engage with Offred during a controlled ceremony, starts spending time with her and giving her contraband substances. 
  • Meanwhile, the commander's wife arranges for Offred to have sex with Nick, her chauffeur, to increase the likelihood of a pregnancy.
  • Nick supposedly arranges for Offred's escape to Canada. However, Offred's fate is left ambiguous. 

Summary

Introduction

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986. It is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian, futuristic version of the United States of America after the takeover of a totalitarian regime called the Sons of Jacob. Due to heavy pollution and radiation, fertility issues are common, and most women are unable to conceive. When they do, the infants often die or are malformed. As one of the few fertile women in Gilead, Offred is forced to copulate with a man of high standing in an attempt to propagate the human race. 

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The book contains two different types of narrative sections: 

  • Chapters focused in the present, where Offred details the events and daily lives of herself, the people she serves, and her acquaintances; and 
  • “Night” chapters where Offred, left alone to her own thoughts and memories, recalls her capture and conditioning as she was trained to be a Handmaid at the Rachel and Leah Center and happier memories of her life before, when she was free.

Plot Summary

When Offred begins her narrative, she is living as the Handmaid to an influential man, known as the Commander, and his barren wife, Serena Joy. As Offred plans for a trip to buy food, she gathers food tokens from Rita, the household cook, and Cora, the maid, both of whom are Marthas, a working-class group of women who cannot have children. The food tokens have pictures of what food items they can be exchanged for, because women are no longer allowed to read.

On her walk, Offred recalls the day five weeks earlier when she first met Serena Joy, who took an instant disliking to her. Serena made it clear that Offred has no claim to her husband and that his attempts to impregnate Offred are strictly a business transaction.

During her trip to buy food, Offred is accompanied by another Handmaid, Ofglen. In town, they come across tourists who do not have to follow the same strict rules and who try to take a photo of the Handmaids, which isn’t allowed. Offred and Ofglen pass the Wall, which is where criminals are hung for all to see.

Offred remembers her life before Gilead, growing up with an activist mother who spoke out against the conservatives. She reminisces about happier, freer times in college with her best friend, Moira. Offred doesn’t know if Moira is still alive.

Back at the Commander’s house, Offred examines all the features of the room she is staying in. Etched into the wood floor in a dark corner, she finds the phrase “nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” She doesn’t know what it means.

Every month, Offred must be examined by a doctor to ensure she is still fertile. During one of her monthly appointments, the doctor offers to attempt to impregnate her himself, claiming most Commanders are too old or sterile to do so. This is an act punishable by death, and Offred refuses.

When she has time alone, Offred recalls a day years before she became a Handmaid when a woman tried to steal her daughter at the grocery store. She remembers when, in Handmaid training at the Rachel and Leah Center, she and Moira and other women were taught by Aunt Helena to believe that rape was their fault, women led men on, and men were like animals incapable of controlling their own sexual desires. She also remembers the day she tried to escape with her...

(The entire section is 2,007 words.)